When your level of stress approaches overload, it can seem like the only thing that would make it stop is an on-demand airlift to a tropical island–or perhaps running out of the office with your arms flailing, screaming about how you can't take it anymore. Unless you just won the lottery, however, neither scenario is likely to happen. Fortunately, there are lots of quick, effective–and low-stakes–ways to calm down. (Bonus: You get to keep your job and savings intact!) Turn to one of these sensory delights the next time stress hits.
This is the first sense to develop, and putting it to use can bring about instant zen. A in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that hugging, holding hands with, or just caressing someone you love can help protect against the negative effects of emotional stress–and it boosts your loved one's mood, too. "Slow touch is an inherently soothing stimulus that is meant to signal safety," says Isac Sehlstedt, a doctoral student at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. No human handy? Just touching the leaves of a plant or a piece of soft fabric can also induce calm quickly. (Good to note: Smooth and furry worked best, showed.)
Gazing at photos of Mother Nature soothes the nervous system into relaxation mode, according to —good to know for when you can't get the real thing—and in a from Frontiers in Psychology, viewing awe-inspiring outdoor scenes was a mood lifter. "It seems that a brief glance at nature from the window can have these so-called 'restorative' effects on us," says study co-author Yannick Joye, PhD, a researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Other photos to keep on hand: ones of your pet or any animal you like. A found that having photos of pets within sight helped relieve participants' math stress.
If you're feeling stressed, you're going to want to call on the people you love–literally. Researchers at the that girls recovered faster from a stressful situation when they heard their mother's voice soon after. They had higher levels of oxytocin–a calming hormone–and a quicker reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. "Vocal communication is hundreds of millions of years old and functions to mediate social relationships in many species," says study co-author Leslie J. Seltzer, PhD. "It is not surprising to note that it can mediate the stress response." Sounds of nature have also been , so step outside and tune in or consult your phone for sounds of birds chirping or water flowing.
You might be thrilled to know that cocoa could be your new go-to stress buster. People who took a cocoa supplement before taking demanding tests had less mental fatigue and better performance than the no-cocoa group, according to a published in Frontiers in Pharmacology. Sip a cup of hot chocolate made with real cocoa or eat a few squares of dark chocolate before you dig into a project you've been dreading. Another tasty mood-booster and tension tamer: dark cherries, which a found to reduce cortisol and increase serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood. The tart treats, which contain calming tryptophan and melatonin, also reduced participants' anxiety levels.
When elementary school teachers were exposed to 15 minutes of aromatherapy with bergamot oil, their nervous systems shifted to parasympathetic (a.k.a. "rest-and-digest") mode, a showed. In from Physiology & Behavior, breathing in a lemon scent lowered blood pressure, heart rate, mood, and tension. The scents' effects are possibly due to their "direct effect of on the limbic system," which regulates emotion, and via "the pharmacological effect that essential oils have on the body," says Kai-Jen Chuang, PhD, an associate professor and researcher at Taipei Medical University. Keep a mini plug-in diffuser nearby or take a few strong whiffs from a bottle of pure lemon or bergamot oil as needed.